Owing to the shiftiness of my shifts at the Morocco Café on New York’s Lower East Side, which depended week to week on the whims of the owner—even the divine belly-dancer Yasmina was not secure and whenever she swept in behind her see-through chiffon I bent and tried to kiss her tiny painted toes, skss skss skss, lest I never see her again—and to the peccadilloes of the owner’s nephew who had taken an overtly blond girlfriend of whom the rest of us, even Ahmed, the cook, and Arturo, the Guatemalan busboy, and the thin, poor Bangladeshi in the kitchen, did not approve, not for reasons of her immodest hair but she came in daily to inquire of her boyfriend’s mood and to show him pages in a white goods’ catalogue and we didn’t like him, the girl we felt nothing towards but our dislike of him—and to the caprices of the Irish siblings, I began to look around for supplementary work. Less by actively searching than waiting for someone to mention a salaried position for illegals in passing.
Thus, on a cold Friday morning in February I came to stand at the bottom of a building in SoHo. I pressed the button beside the name of the artist I had been alerted to.
“Hello, hello!” he shouted into the intercom.
“It’s me,” I said. “M__’s friend.”
The painter was an old friend of my friend M__. He had recently acquired a new wife and baby to take the place of the ones he’d had years before. I’d been told this in a roundabout way by our mutual friend M__, who was unashamed of gossip and had herself married approximately four Jewish men.
“Ohh,” he replied heartily, as if my being there at the time we had agreed upon was something of a surprise. “Come on up. Second floor,” as he buzzed the lock and I pushed my way in carrying all that I knew of him.
The loft was white, with large, loft-like windows. The painter, as much as I could tell from his morning wash, looked as if he needed to make a fast buck. Not that his surroundings were shabby—potted plants, real leather—but his graying mop attached to his pale scalp like a wrecked halo while his soft, firm body lurched suddenly to the right or left, “This way, this way, this way,” he said. I don’t know why I supposed a quick infusion of cash might correct the imbalance—but I did.
I was not given a full or even half tour of the loft, nor did I connive a solo visit to the bathroom but peeked down passageways as he led me without delay to his studio. I understood his secondary wife did not care to meet me or any of the newer models. Something he said—unnecessarily, I thought—about her being “Japanese”—at which I imagined I understood the complete circumstances of their marriage. I thought I caught a glimpse of her as he whisked me through, performing an extravagant exercise in butoh in a distant space, pouring white powder and herself from one surface to another and softly moaning “Sha-aa-aa-a . . .”
The painter gestured towards an oriental screen in the far corner of the room.
“Have you done any—ah, modeling before?” he asked.
We had discussed it over the telephone.
“That doesn’t matter,” he said jovially.
I let out a small chortle with him.
“Would you like to—um, change?” he asked.
I felt timid, embarrassed. It was not at all like at the doctor’s office, and the reality of my new situation suddenly struck me.
“There’s a robe back there, if you like,” he said.
I slipped behind the Japanese screen and began to undress. I felt each stage of my nudity acutely, as a fever that crept over my skin. I was not a robe-wearer by nature, having assigned silken robes early on—for reasons I couldn’t recall, one of Mother’s old friends?—to the province of the whores. Ah, but I remembered my old roommate, poor dear Laura, slinking between the apartment’s two rooms in her murky stained kimono. But I could not emerge like Eve from the shadows of the forbidden bush! I slipped the unwashed robe over my shoulders and tied it loosely at the waist, as if to signify my consent to remove it anon. I took a little longer than I might, listening to the rustles and clicks on the other side of the screen, imagining their origins, returning again to the slight buzzing numbness of my flesh, the cool, dampish silk against the nape of my neck, shoulder blades, breasts, waist, buttocks— Did it mean I was less naked, or more?
When I came out the painter had his back to me, having decided to greet my initial appearance by crouching over a small drawer. At every moment of his decision-making, his instantaneous answering of the buzzer and gross repetition of earlier conversations, I loathed and liked him a bit more. He pulled out a small bouquet of pencils from the drawer. A young man, a boy, appeared at the open door with a large sketchbook in hand. I smiled uneasily at him. Surely—“This is Evan, my oldest son”—the painter said.
“H-h-hi,” the boy stuttered, though he wasn’t a natural.
“You don’t mind if—”
“Not at all,” I answered, though I hadn’t met their like before.
“Where shall I, uh, sit?” I said.
“On the sofa if you like,” the old man said.
I walked over to it, releasing the robe as I sat down.
“I’ll get that,” the boy muttered without a stammer, rushing to pluck it off the carpet and drape it over a stool.
I sat sideways along the sofa, my legs stretched out, the fibers tickling my underside.
“I don’t usually sit,” I said, meaning straight-on.
The old painter blushed.
“Do as you please,” he said.
“Try changing positions every minute, and we’ll start with quick sketches. You’re a real—”
“I’ll say ‘change’ if you like.”
“Like this?” I said, bending my left knee and letting my right leg fall softly off the front of the sofa. But the boy had reappeared in my direct line and I lifted my leg to where it was before. His face turned pale orange.
“That’s it,” his father said.
I listened to the soft scratching of their pencils.
I crossed one leg over the other and lifted my arms over my head, clasping my elbows as I inclined against the arm of the sofa.
“That’s good,” the old man said.
In the corner, the boy was very quiet, as if contemplating the nature of his sin.
I slipped down onto the rug on the floor, bending my knees into my chest, wrapping my arms about them and inclining my head to one side.
“So Modigliani!” the old man cried, with hushed breath.
I didn’t quite know what he meant though I guessed angular, thin. I was pleased not to be viewed as one of Ruben’s graces, or a large French bather.
I was warming to the task and leaned my body sideways against the chair, propping my head in my arm.
“We’ll stay with this one longer if that’s alright,” the old painter said.
“Fine,” I said.
“This is nice. Good,” the old man said. “Don’t mind if you talk.”
“No, it’s alright,” I said, though I was beginning to be bored. I looked directly across the room at a row of paintings propped against the wall. I had only the paintings of Michelangelo and Cézanne to compare them with, that I’d scoured in books—but by any measure these paintings were awful. They looked to be stark renditions of cartoon figures. But surely the old goat hadn’t meant to re-render the renderings of Mickey Mouse? I thought the very idea—limp enough—had been stolen, and I felt ashamed that I had acquiesced without first inquiring as to his credentials, what small fame he might bestow upon me posthumously. O, to be seen as the master’s nude muse. Stupid, stupid girl!
It was the boy calling the shots.
I climbed back onto the couch.
“You’re a natural,” the old man murmured.
I mentally dismissed him, turning fully to the younger. I set my glance at the wall just left of his bony shoulder.
“Don’t you think so?” the father asked the son.
The boy coughed, clearly embarrassed. I wondered if the boy and I were to form a passing union of some kind—due to the startling new position I found myself in, unwarranted and unwarned of as it had been—would it remove the stain of sin or embroider it?
Pushed into my hand at the end of the first sitting: thirty dollars, and two sketches of a full-thighed woman. In the first she lies on her back along a couch, her breast peeping out from beneath a silken throw tossed loosely over her middle and the tops of her legs. In the second she sits, turned away, on a rug on the floor, her left shoulder leaning into a plush chair, her spine a straight line of eleven dots drawn down to nineteen tiny hairs spiking out between her buttocks.
I showed the sketches to my boyfriend Barry:
“You must feel like—”
“No. Not really,” I said, turning up my mouth.
“Well—” he said.
“It’s just, you know—” I said.
“His son was there,” I said.
“The painter’s son.”
“A kid?” Barry said.
“I guess. He drew me—”
“He was seventeen,” I said.
“I think. About that.”
I showed him the second sketch.
“That’s fucking sick,” Barry said.
“No, I mean those bastards are really sick.”
“You have to be careful,” he said.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“You mean I shouldn’t do it?”
“Do what you want.”
“I will,” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s not nothing.”
“What’s not nothing?” I said, momentarily losing track.
“That. Those,” he said, indicating the two as yet ungraded sketches.
“Clearly,” I said, “not nothing.”
“You know what I mean,” he said.
I thought I did know what he meant, but what I thought he meant was slightly at odds with what he thought he meant or so I surmised through the thick veil of silence that descended like a great curtain at the end of a performance and could not be raised no matter how I tugged on the usual strings. To put the young man (boy) aside for a moment—to unravel the nature of his sin would require a daring plunge into Talmudic scripture which I had neither the temperament nor genetic inheritance to pursue, though let me say that after a cursory glance at Leviticus I found no prohibition against relations with “one’s father’s son”—I thought it was the nineteen discreet hairs that made the difference, made it be “not nothing,” as Barry said. In penciling those tufts—scascacascascasacsca—the old painter had crossed the divide between ‘nothing’ and ‘not nothing,’ and chosen to reveal something that clearly did not, or had not theretofore, belonged to him. (In Leviticus, the action might have married us.) But in modern times it was not a question of possession so much as of taste. The old painter’s poor taste; my poor taste in having presented my hind view to him. How quickly he had scribbled in under the overhang of the upper buttock! Yes. Yes. I thought I knew Barry meant all that, but what I thought was missing from his meaning was a deeper layer in which all action was accounted for—the old painter’s, mine, Barry’s—at a knowing remove. We’d almost hit upon it in tandem when he’d said, gruffly I thought, “Do what you want,” and I’d said, “I will.” As if I had any choice! I wanted to revisit that section with Barry, to tease out its karmic currents, but he wasn’t speaking, and had just then fallen asleep.
Jo McKendry grew up in Queensland, Australia. She danced professionally in Sydney and New York before beginning to write. Her stories have appeared in Fiction, Antioch Review, Southwest Review and Stand. She lives with her family in Boston, Massachusetts.